Monday, November 26, 2012

Another view on the start of the latest Gaza conflict

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist, claims that he was mediating between Israel and Hamas and was close to an agreement when the present trouble started. Ahmed Jaabari, the commander of the military wing of Hamas, was the key actor on the Palestinian side. They seemed close to an agreement when Jaabari was murdered by the Israeli.

The big question of course is why...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Next stop: Jordan

While Syria is still burning the Gulf States are already busy starting their next regime change project in Jordan. The developments until now:
- the Gulf states have stopped subsidies, resulting in a 3 billion government deficit.
- add to that the influx of 200,000 Syrian refugees
- So the government felt the need to rise the fuel prices, what was a nice excuse for protests.
- the Muslim Brotherhood has "expanded alliances with the extremists known as Salafists, unions and the loose-knit, largely secular protest movement known as the Hirak."
- Of course all the troublemakers claim to speak on behalf of "the people" and any concession the government makes is considered "not enough".

It looks like the Jordan king will pay a high price for the way he betrayed Syria.

In the mean time the smell of fear in the Arab world - that was already sensible when the Arab League accepted its resolutions against Gaddafi with many voting blank (obviously fearing that the Gulf States would target them next for regime change) - keeps rising.

Postscript: Today an article (In foiled Jordanian terror plot, officials see hand of resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq) about a foiled Al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Jordan: A Western intelligence official familiar with the Amman plot said most of the suspects had fought in Syria before returning to Jordan with new skills and a changed perspective toward their native country. [..] “They are real fighters,” the official said. “From Syria, they had weapons training and tactics. They were good at shooting, and they knew how to use complicated communications systems.” They also had another important advantage: easy access to the almost endless supply of weapons in Syria, where arms bound for rebel fighters arrive daily across the Turkish border. Cases of TNT, mortar shells, grenade launchers and even belt-fed machine guns were smuggled into Jordan for an attack that planners hoped would wreak havoc across the capital and lead to the collapse of the country’s Western-backed government. [..] To build the biggest bombs, the Jordanians received vital help from AQI, including a formula for enhancing the explosive power of ordinary TNT, the officials said. The instructions were passed via e-mails, and the key ingredients were delivered to a safe house in Syria.

This article (Al Nusra: Al Qaeda’s Syria Offensive) provides more details: Last October the Jordanian intelligence service foiled a plot based in Syria by al Qaeda to stage a mass-casualty terror attack in Amman that was apparently modeled on the 2008 attack by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai, India. The attack would have begun with suicide bombers in two shopping malls in Amman; then, when the security forces rushed to deal with those, other attackers would attack the American embassy and other Western diplomats in the city.

Jordanian authorities believe that the planned attacks were scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the November 9, 2005, terrorist attacks in Amman, in which 60 people were killed and 115 injured in multiple hotel bombings. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing its rejection of Jordan’s alliance with the United States and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordanian intelligence said that group nicknamed its terror plot “9/11 the second” after the 2005 bombings. Among those arrested were two cousins of the Jordanian founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, who planned the 2005 attack.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Salafism: how facism works

The NY Times has an article (Tunisia Battles Over Pulpits, and Revolt’s Legacy) about the role of Salafists in Tunisia. They don't recognize democracy and violently try to impose their will - taking over mosques, destroying selling points of alcohol, etc.

According to the article the Tunisian government is slowly taking back control of the mosques. Some 800 Salafists are already in prison. But it looks like the Salafists are getting stronger in other areas.

These Salafists are a good illustration of the old principle that you can't have other armed groups outside the control of the state. The violence monopoly of the government is one of the most essential foundations of democracy. When you have armed groups around they form a kind of alternative government and some people will look at them for that. That explains why a considerable number of people will feel attracted by such armed groups.

This explains also why I am so vehemently against those "democratic" uprisings in Libya and Syria. They undermine the violence monopoly of the government and in that way make democracy less viable.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to get realistic on mediation in Syria

An increasingly heavy conflict has been developing in Syria for more than one and a half year now. In the course of time several outside parties have tried to mediate the conflict and until now all have failed. The reason: an unrealistic view on the situation and how to mediate it.

The first to mediate was the Turkish government. Still basking its perceived glorious role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it hoped to bring around a similar regime change here too. When that didn’t work out immediately the Turkish government turned against Assad and started supporting and arming the rebels. It was a rather strange vision on mediation

Next was Annan. He demanded for Assad’s departure and for foreign pressure on the Syrian government. He didn’t make similar demands from the rebels. Doing so he violated the most basic principle of mediation: neutrality.

An alternative vision could recently been seen in the new “National Initiative Council” that is promoted by the US and the Gulf States as the new foreign representative of the Syrian rebels. I think Clinton is deluding herself with this initiative. Millions of Syrians prefer Assad above the rebels and that won’t change with this initiative. Neither will it stop the ongoing radicalization of the rebel fighters that is increasingly driving neutral Syrians to prefer Assad. There is no real alternative to accepting Assad as a full partner in the discussions about the future of Syria.

Clinton seems to see Syria as part of an international power game and to see removing Assad is a step in her conflict with Iran. It is not hard to see the immoral side of this attitude. But from the political point of view it is a risky move too. The core support groups of the rebels in Syria are the same of the those of the Mujaheddin and Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution: religious fanatics, social conservatives and people hurt by economic modernization. It is unlikely that a win of those groups will be in the long term interest of the US.

Brahimi has preserved a neutral position. Unfortunately he made the mistake of organizing an armistice without first organizing talks between the parties. Predictably both sides saw the armistice as something that they needed to do as a public relations gesture towards the West. But they didn’t see it as a first step towards peace and only saw it as a short break in a battle that has to fought till the bitter end. So their commitment was low.

I found both Annan and Brahimi unfortunate choices for a mediator. Real mediation is a rather humble profession. The mediator functions as the sound of reason and the source of solutions. But he has no power over the sides and has to watch powerlessly when parties change their mind. For such a job Annan and Brahimi have a much too high status. A lower ranking diplomat would have been a better choice.

That the they have been chosen anyway has to do with a rather strange vision on diplomacy in which “mediating” diplomats more or less dictate solutions. As they miss military power and rely on diplomatic pressure they need a truce to operate in: that is also the reason that both Annan and Brahimi started with organizing a truce.

Such solutions often work well between a few big parties where the main issue is power distribution. However, when things get ugly with discrimination and expulsion and rebuilding trust between the parties is important they tend to be dysfunctional. A good example was the Kosovo mediation of Ahtisaari that ended with the unilateral Ahtisaari Plan. It was a good excuse to declare Kosovo independent but it did nothing to improve the relations between the ethnic groups in Kosovo or to bring the many remaining refugees back. It rather froze the bad relations. Unfortunately the West’s role in those solutions mean that the status of our diplomats gets connected with those solutions: when later on Serbian and Kosovar politicians seemed on their way to reach a real agreement that included border changes – something Ahtisaari had refused – American diplomats were sent in to block this.

Syria’s primary problem is a total lack of trust between segments of the population. The Alawites remember being treated as pariahs before World War I and they have seen how some rebel propagandists are trying to push them back in the same corner. The Christians see among the rebel fighters the same people who were instrumental in the expulsion of half of Iraq’s Christians. Westernized Sunni see the rebels as revengeful fanatics who waged a murder campaign around 1980 that has poisoned the political climate since then and who nowadays murder people for the faintest association with Assad. They see also rising cultural intolerance including pressure on women to wear head scarves. On the other hand many rebel fighters fear that if they loose the battle they will have to spend the rest of their lives as exiles.

You can’t solve such problems by imposing a solution. Such a “solution” would only raise the fears of one – if not both – parties. What is needed is a dialogue that re-establishes Syria as a place were both sides can live together in peace. Such a dialogue has by definition to take place in the open. Only the light of publicity can expose and marginalize extremists who don’t want to respect other people. Only the light of publicity can point the way to consensus.

Such a dialogue will be intensive and take a considerable time. Representatives have to be chosen, trust has to be built and the participants will need regular contact with their support base.

Efforts to start such a dialogue should have begun long ago. Unfortunately the UN was too preoccupied with its visions of grand diplomacy while the US and Turkey were too occupied with their visions of regime change. Both saw negotiations between the Syrian factions as just a final gathering that should – under heavy diplomatic pressure – rubberstamp the decisions they have made.

Unfortunately you can’t solve a situation like Syria’s that way. Syria needs a real dialogue.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sanctions cause medicine and food shortage in Iran

According to the NY Times (Iran Sanctions Take Unexpected Toll on Medical Imports) the US sanctions against Iran are causing an unexpected shortage of medicine in Iran. After the heavy fines that the US has imposed on banks for past transactions with Iran banks have now become anxious to have anything to do with Iran and they refuse even transactions that are not forbidden by sanctions - like medicine sales.

But rather than considering this "unexpected" I think this is the logical consequence of Obama's view of trade as an arm. I am fundamentally opposed to that policy as it undermines the foundations of free trade.

Besides that it is well known that trade sanctions don't work and only strenthen sitting regimes. It it much better to have symbolic sanctions that clarify your position without imposing major harm.

According to Reuters (Sanctions side effect hits Iran's food system) Iran's food import has been similarly affected.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Chinese don't get it either on Syria

According to Xinhua the Chinese have during their discussion with Brahimi proposed a four points plan for Syria that starts with an armistice and is followed by the Syrian parties - under guidance of Brahimi and the international community - writing a roadmap for transition.

It is the same madness that has made Brahimi's mission such a poor performance!

Note that they don't even use the word "negotiations". That is because there will be no real negotiations. Just as with the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo and later Cooper's "technical" discussions the plan for Syria is basically an international dictat. But you can't solve distrust with a dictat: only open talks can do that. We have seen that in Kosovo where the Ahtissaari Plan did nothing to improve the inter-ethnic relations and we will see that again in Syria.

The distrust and fear between the parties in Syria is almost proverbial. Many rebel fighters fear they will have to spend the rest of their life in exile if they don't win. Many Alawites fear discrimination or even expulsion if Assad is driven out. The Christians aren't much more optimistic - having seen what the Iraqi colleagues of the rebels did to their co-religionists there. Only open talks between the parties can really address this distrust.